South African Pinotage Wine Guide, Tasting Notes, Regional Guide

Pinotage grapes flourish in dense clusters on the vine. Image courtesy Cape Ardor.

Discover Pinotage Wine – South Africa’s New World Gem

Pinotage really is a bit of an anomaly in that it’s a grape variety that is ‘somewhat’ native to South Africa — thanks to France. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense. Early on in my wine education I related it to the Brits sending all of their prisoners to Australia and accidentally creating a country. In reality, Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir (Red Burgundy) and Cinsault, a Southern French grape that itself is known as Hermitage in South Africa.

Pinotage actually has a pretty unique story behind it, which in and of itself sets it apart from some of the more noteworthy Old World grapes which we’ve come to love. I won’t get into extreme detail about the story as you’re probably here to learn about the tasting notes. But if you’re curious, it’s said that the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University — Abraham Izak Perold — created the Pinot Noir / Cinsault cross in an effort to bring the taste of Burgundy France to South Africa. He planted four grape seeds in 1925, which were later forgotten about after he left the university. Some time after, a young lecturer by the name of Charlie Niehaus stumbled onto the garden at Stellenbosch near where Perold used to live. Overgrown at this point, and scheduled for revitalization, Niehaus rescued the plants and brought them to Elsenburg Agricultural College. It was here that professor CJ Theron had them replanted, and later showed Perold his well-adapted creation. They called the cross Pinotage, and by 1941 the signature grape of South African was being transformed into fermented grape juice.

That’s the short of it, and I hope with every liver cell in my body that the story’s true, because it’s probably the only grape story that really interests me.

So why Pinot Noir?

Why Cinsault? Couldn’t he have used any of Italy’s 3000+ grape varieties? Honestly, the questions go on. I didn’t know Perold personally (surprise), but he must have had an affinity for Burgundian wine.

South African Pinotage, What does Pinotage taste like?The finest Red Burgundy is fantastic. Unfortunately, the Pinot Noir grape variety is notoriously difficult to grow. Cinsault on the other hand, is a growers dream. In fact, mass-produced Cinsault tends to get a bit of the ‘stinkeye’ these days because it’s often used as a filler grape. This variety is extremely high-yielding, drought and disease resistant. That may sound like a good thing, (hey, more wine right?), but these extreme yields lessen the concentration and aromatic quality of the grape. Big yields in wet climates equals rot, so South Africa — Stellenbosch in particular — makes for an ideal dry climate.

If the Vintner were able to control his or her Cinsault yield… the result can be incredibly rewarding. So, in my opinion, it wasn’t that Perold wanted to create great tasting Pinot Noir on a grand scale. I like to think that he wanted to offer wine enthusiasts the best of both worlds with moderate yields. Perhaps, from the beginning, he dreamed of creating South Africa’s very own grape variety.

Fun Fact: There’s a small but ambitious market for Sparkling Red Pinotage in South Africa

Even though Pinotage was first vinted in the 1940’s, winemakers wouldn’t master the art of consistency for decades. When apartheid hit in the 60s, it would be 30 years before boycotts were lifted that would allow new technological advances and winemaking knowledge to reach South Africa. Finally, we’re getting more consistent flavors and aromas. Though body style can vary depending on how the wine was crafted, particularly in how long and within what it was aged. Just within the last 10 years has Pinotage truly begun to really show off its true potential. There’s even recent evidence that aging Pinotage can give way to lighter, more Pinot Noir-esque characteristics.

Pinotage Tasting Notes | Pinotage Food Pairings and CharacteristicsPinotage Tasting Notes, Look, Feel & Aromatic Qualities

Despite one of Pinotages’ parents being Pinot Noir, you probably wouldn’t be able to detect its origins if you’re a new wine taster. It’s reminiscent of Shiraz with bold dark fruit and firm tannins on the open. In addition, some critics pin a signature rustic aroma to it along the lines of fresh paint. I personally enjoy the smell of fresh paint (and gasoline for that matter), but I really haven’t picked it up in quality produced Pinotage. If the vintner fails to limit water intake during the growing season or utilize low-temperature fermentation techniques, volatile acidity can become a real issue in the final product.

In the glass, Pinotage exhibits a look that’s reminiscent of a lighter-bodied Malbec and Shiraz. Deep magenta hues around the rim of the glass compliment a cassis and deep violet core.

Fun Fact: Deep color means more polyphenolic compounds which means more antioxidants and healthy nutriment for your body. New research is even offering up evidence that they can reverse and or prevent certain types of cancers or heart related diseases. As if you needed another reason to drink Pinotage. 

What Does Pinotage Taste Like?

Common Flavors and Aromas

  • Fruit: Red (Primary), Blue and Black – Ripe Cherry, Strawberry, Blackberry, Cassis, Red Currant, Plum
  • Earth & Mineral Descriptors: Dry Earth, Rust, Gravel
  • Additional Complexities: Old Red Barn and Horseshoe, Banana, Cracked Red Pepper, Light-Moderate Oak, Smoke, Tar, Spicy Teriyaki, Decades Old Spice Box, Fresh Paint, Coffee

*Side Note… these Pinotage tasting notes are derived from both common and best quality versions of the wine. As always, I like to stress that wine tasting is really a subjective practice, so consider these guidelines and describe what you know.*

Structure

  • Body: Light-Medium-Full
  • Sugar: Dry
  • Tannins: High
  • Acid: Low
  • Alcohol: Medium-Plus
  • Finish: Sour-Sweet, Medium

Terroir

  • Soil: Varied
  • Climate: Hot / Dry
  • Notable Regions: South Africa | Brazil | New Zealand | California, USA
Pinotage Food Pairing Recipes, Shrimp

Going spicy barbecue with anything isn’t a bad call. These BBQ shrimp skewers from SophnStuff will hit the spot.

Pinotage Food Pairing Ideas and Recipes

Yes… my favorite part. Food and wine. As you may have noticed from the above tasting notes, Pinotage encompasses a diverse, but seemingly categorical flavoric lineup. This translates over to your ideal food pairings. Think Strawberries, think astringency, think spice. Ignore the body. That varies depending on what you’re buying. This is really a flavor pairing.

Related – Celebrate Pinotage: If you want to help bolster a grape reputation, drink a bottle of Pinotage and share it with the world on the second Saturday of every October — designated International Pinotage Day

Additional sources include Pinotage.co.za, Cape Town Magazine.

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